Last post I was carrying on (at too much length as usual) about auto-fiction and Christ Kraus’s books (among others). I’m still wandering around in that terrain, definitely feeling less lost. I mean, I’m getting it. And want to say a few things about Kraus’s bio of Kathy Acker as well as a strange new publication from Semiotext(e), a collection of email correspondence between Kathy and former socio-cultural Wunderkind McKenzie Wark, who I knew and liked when we worked together in the same department back in ancient times.
But not right now. This is to issue a correction, or an expansion rather, about the Chris Kraus effect. A body of seemingly random writing by faintly famous people and people who know other faintly famous people has suddenly emerged into the literary firmament after years of obscurity. It is a bit like suddenly discovering the Bloomsbury circle, decades later, featured in comic books, sorry, graphic novels.
Not that I really think the Semiotext(ers) are comparable to Virginia Woolfe’s circle, but maybe that’s not so far-fetched. My question was: why these books? Why now? Where did this new prominence come from?
I said: I Love Dick has been republished by Tuska Rock Press, an imprint of Profile Books, London, with the catchy subtitle: ‘The Cult Feminist Novel, Now a ….” But the Kindle version cuts off what it now is, so we can imagine all the things it might be, like an independent movie made by Kraus herself? Probably not a Netflix series, but then, you never know.
Well how dumb was I! Obviously I hadn’t done my homework. My apologies. IT IS A SERIES! Not a Netflix one, but made for Amazon Video and you can stream it right now on Prime if you sign up. Why are we toiling away writing books when we could be writing directly for television? Or does television need our books? If so, why?
“I Love Dick” – the book, and the people around the book – have been discovered because of the TV series. Although Chris Kraus had a role in the production, it was helmed and mostly written by Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins. A “sleeper hit” of 2017 it was canceled after one season. Apparently it was too popular with the wrong kind of people, that is to say, not the masses. Jill Soloway is the show-runner, director and sometimes writer on the Amazon series Transparent. It’s showing on Amazon right now too. It is about a family where the pater-familias turns himself into a mater. There has been a lot of drama about the show, not only onscreen. Soloway identifies as non-binary and the show has been hailed as a main-stream acknowledgment of the powerful rise of the non-binary in contemporary culture. The star, Jeffrey Tambor, was recently pink-slipped largely because he himself is not a non-binary which makes him inauthentic in the role according to various critics. He has been lashing out about it. It would make a good TV series. But it looks like Amazon wants to get out of its quality niche offerings and go back to the masses. Yawn.
Anyway that’s part of another story. All I wanted to point out is that Chris Kraus’s books have suddenly been re-discovered BECAUSE their sensibility works so well in today’s edgy uncertain social spaces among the creative classes AND BECAUSE AMAZON MADE A TV SERIES OUT OF IT. It will be interesting to find out what the effect is on sales of her books, along with Kathy Acker’s and the various other outliers which are popping up. But if none of the streamers want to take up this kind of niche, I guess it won’t be happening again. But it was fun while it lasted.
While still musing (fretting, angsting, brooding) about the memoirs (Outsidethe Frame) I noticed a recent comment in The Guardian by Alex Clark (Sat 23rd June 2018). There are booms in things that we in slow old Australia sometimes don’t know about for ages, or they are overlooked in the very few outlets where local readers find out about what books to read eg The WeekendAustralian Review (sorry, Stephen Romei, we love you anyway). The hot new thing, Clark says, is autofiction. Another recent comment asks plaintively, “Why have novelists stopped making things up?” here.
So it’s a big trend, and it’s led me into a further vortex of reading and thinking about the question of life-writing, or whatever it is, and the enormous burst of genre-busting (like bunker-busting) which seems to have suddenly become possible. The old divide “fact/fiction” is wobbly and feeble, although nobody has told whoever writes the Amazon categories.
Autofiction is in the space between fact and fiction but goes a bit further. Its origins lie with French writer Serge Doubrovsky, whose 1977 novel Fils (Son) did away with traditional elements including plot and character development. It might or might not have been “telling the truth”.
Lately the autofiction trajectory has ramped up and it’s getting really really complicated because all kinds of writers are writing about others living and dead and they are all in a kind of gang and once you start with one of them you finish up with a whole crowd. It’s like inviting a new acquaintance over for a drink and they ask if they can bring their mate and the mate bring some other mates and they all know everything about each other and are planning a sleep-over and you didn’t know any of them before today.
Olivia Laing has written a couple of personal non-fiction narratives, the kind of book where the author takes a personal experience and turns it into a form of sociology/history. In The LonelyCity (2016) she wrote about Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, among other art works which offer insight into urban alienation.
I came across this book while researching Hopper who I had studied for my painting degree. She draws heavily on the classic biographies – Gail Levin’s fantastic book on Hopper, for example. I then discovered Laing had published The Trip to Echo Springs: Why Writers Drink (2013). Are there really good excuses for the bad behavior of great artists, or, as Sarah Ditum says in the New Statesman (20th June 2018) is all that artistic stuff is a lot of hokum and they are just regular drunks who happen to be writers?
But now Laing has somehow fused herself with the late Kathy Acker, and written Crudo. published by Picador in July 2018. It is about the summer of 2017, you know, Trump, Mosul, Grenfell, celebrity deaths. But the story is Laing’s own, about her marriage to poet Ian Patterson, and about another book, the new biography AfterKathy Acker by Chris Kraus. The narrator Laing identifies herself as “Kathy” and has somehow appropriated the life of Acker, who died horribly of untreated breast cancer aged 50 in 1997. Kathy Acker is having a big surge with millennial girls/women after years of non-recognition. She wrote, among other things, Blood and Guts in High School and Great Expectations, both recently reissued by Penguin.
What the hell is going on? If you felt confused by what I just said about Laing’s book you’ll be even more so when you come to another autofiction booming in reprint, written by that self-same Chris Kraus.
This is a seriously weird piece of work. I Love Dick may sound like a pornographic come-on (excuse me!) but instead it purports to be (or is?) a whole lot of different sorts of writing put together by failed film-maker Chris Kraus and her husband, French theorist Sylvère Lotringer. Chris forms a sudden and irresistable passion for Dick, an English theorist who arrives in Los Angeles via Melbourne and fancies himself as a cowboy. She doesn’t name him in the book, but he’s outed by the New York Times (I think) as Dick Hebdige, author of that most famous 70s sociology book, Subculture: the Meaning of Style. I taught cultural anthropology courses using that book for years. Hebdige went on to write on contemporary art, design, media, mods, reggae, postmodernism, improvisation and Takashi Murakami. No wonder Kraus and probably Lotringer fell madly in love with him. Chris pretty much started stalking him, in a literary kind of way.
A little research reveals that he was appalled and issued a legal “cease and desist” order which was ignored completely. Poor man, he is still teaching in California and who knows how he faces up to those rows of eager students all of whom know he is “Dick” and that he has been “loved”. Even worse for him now with the Amazon Prime mini-series, where “Dick” has been turned into a cultural studies/art cowboy who makes gigantic sculptures in the Texas desert. Kevin Bacon plays Dick.
I Love Dick is kind of a story, it has a beginning, middle and end. Kraus and Lotringer are definitely real people. They probably did write all those letter and make all those phone calls. But here’s one clue as to why this is such a weird read, because it includes a lot of faxes, and faxes are so … well …. yesterday or, to be more precise, last century and indeed look up the publication history and you will find that this book was published originally in 1997 by Semiotext(e), a well known French-theory inspired journal/magazine/publisher which, guess what, was run by Lotringer and is still going today, releasing all kinds of strange and interesting books about Foam, Morocco, Versace and has also just published Chris Kraus’s new book on Kathy Acker. So we’re back in a circle.
Now I Love Dick has been republished by Tuska Rock Press, an imprint of Profile Books, London, with the catchy subtitle: ‘The Cult Feminist Novel, Now a ….” But the Kindle version cuts off what it now is, so we can imagine all the things it might be, like an independent movie made by Kraus herself? Probably not a Netflix series, but then, you never know. There’s an Afterword by Joan Hawkins – there are several people who could be her, one an academic, one a psychotherapist. Hawkins calls Kraus’s writing “theoretical fiction”. This is because theory becomes part of the plot, where debates over theory form an intrinsic part of the narrative. Well, that covers things nicely.
It is an 80s story, although set in the 1990s, by which time everyone, filmmakers, theorists, academics and famous former roués were all expected to have become tamed and obedient to the emerging neo-puritanism bursting open the last seams of the millennial sofa to get rid of all that old-school libertarian stuffing. These characters still say “dig” – as in, “people who dig each other’s references”. Well!
As a veteran of French theory I am kind of thrilled to see it resuscitated even if it is in a quasi-romantic/pornographic pretend novel. And now Kraus’s earlier totally neglected book has been republished, or just published, not sure which, and it is about the same couple before they met Dick although they have different names so it’s a kind of prequel. In Torpor the couple in 1989 or 1990 go to Romania to adopt an orphan. I’m loving it.
It’s very exciting to be thinking about where these various forms of fictive narrative or narrative fictions or Me-Moirs are really going. Sadly though it has shown me that what I am writing might be far too archaic and old-fashioned being full of plot and narrative and cliff-hangers at the end of chapters and efforts at transparency and truth-telling. Even bothering to write this much about your own life is pretty radical when you are as old as I am and have no idea if anyone will ever read it. Although there is theory in my books, it is not so obvious that it will annoy anyone and probably no-one will even notice. But I am a bit sad about it too. I’d love to be writing something crazy and unacceptable and scary and disgraceful and dripping with it, a self-saucing theory-fest.
After the last few months of dizzying dance around the Memoirs, I’m pressing on now with a radical plan – submitting to an Australian publisher’s open call with The Dying Year, about the events in 2008 when my very elderly mother and fairly elderly ex-husband die in the same three week period. The events sparked off a cascade of disaffection from which this formerly tight family has never recovered. It is my third book of memoirs and will be the first to appear. Many recent memoirs are about a late parent or a deceased husband so I’m on trend here. If the publisher says no, I might try finding an Australian agent, and if that fails, well, it will be a DIY job, although I know it’s far from ideal for this kind of writing.
In my previous post I commented on memoir-writing which has inspired (and dis-inspired) me. Two of the writers I mentioned stay close to some version of “what really happened”. As far as Ferrante is concerned, who knows?
But now I am thinking about the rise of the definitely-not-really-me memoir, sometimes described as fictionalized non-fiction. In volume IV, still in progress, about my time in New Guinea, I found myself writing a long section, quite disconnected from the actual story, about a writer who I seem to have been shadowing for the past fifty years. I am thinking of appending it as a personal epilogue to the main account. She is a very famous figure in Australian women’s writing and you could say she was at the beginning of the movement of the semi-me-moir , as I think of narratives written in the first person about real people and actual events, who are nevertheless distorted and disguised.
One chapter in The Dying Year talks about G. W. Sebald’s book Austerlitz, where the narrator recounts a story told to him by the purported subject, so you read it as a biography but by the end you realize that it could be a completely fictional character but there are all these photographs and pieces of documentary evidence which lead you to suppose this person really did exist and these things really did happen.
I was so sure it was “real” that I found a copy of the famous Theresienstadt concentration camp film and searched through it to see if I could find the image of the woman who might have been Austerlitz’s dead mother and then I thought how insane this was as the image could have been of any woman at all and I couldn’t even find it anyway even though the text stated exactly at what minute and second the tiny briefly flickering image supposedly existed. But of course the film itself could have been edited to different lengths a hundred times.
In the Introduction to my Memoirs I vowed not to write narrative non- fiction or fictionalised autobiography, I wanted to write “the truth” as far as I could see it … but of course, there’s the problem right there, since the Rashomon effect is in full swing before you even dredge up the first images in your mind especially where it concerns deeply felt emotional stuff and your own family and your own memories and your own self-love and ambivalent feelings and your inability to remember even a fraction of things that actually happened in your past life and the absolutely refractory nature of “truth” as told by anyone let alone a self-absorbed and self-justifying author.
I think I will be saying a lot more about this frustrating phenomenon. And if you are wondering, I’ve written a bit more about the project on this site, click on the tab above labeled, unapologetically, Memoirs.
Last time I wrote a bit about the memoir I am currently reading, by Tara Westover. This led me to reconsider other memoir writers who have been especially influential (and otherwise) in my current project. I think it’s incredibly important to remain aware of the link between what you are reading and what you are writing. There are thousands of memoirs around, a lot of them extremely boring. But memoirs of writers … especially of writers who mainly write memoirs … it’s a whole area of literary scrutiny which seems weirdly appropriate in the present era of compulsory self-curation. So here are some thoughts about three recent literary memoirists who have had a big influence on my recent work.
Joan Didion’s book about her husband’s death The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), and her later book about the death of her daughter, Blue Nights (2011), were important for me in understanding how differently writers can inhabit and explain their inner worlds. The story itself is heart-wrenchingly painful. From a young, happy creative woman with a loving family life, Didion suffers the ravages of time and random chance, far beyond what she ever could have imagined, with painful dignity. The passage of time itself seems almost a character in her books, enhanced by the publication in various places of photographs (though not in the books themselves). I have been wondering about whether to put lots of photographs in mine. I love looking at other people’s snapshots of themselves and their families and friends as I am reading their memoirs. On the other hand, sometimes the imagination is the best illustrator.
KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD: MY STRUGGLE
Knausgaard showed me that I didn’t need to follow a temporal sequence but could produce component volumes of different lengths and time periods in episodically random order. His first was A Death in the Family (2009 in the English publication sequence) and he was writing it round about the same time as I was writing my own maternal mortality story. His revelations about his father, which caused a violent storm in his native Norway, were pretty gruesome. I had nothing of that kind to contribute. My mother had done some pretty awful things like most of us do, but she was nothing like the kind of horror he described his father to be. If anyone was a horror, it was me. Sixty-three at the time, I still thought I had to excel in my career. I still thought I was much more important than anybody else. This was not the frame of mind to be in when trying to help a 93 year old woman through the last year of her life.
Like most English-language readers I was gripped by Knausgard’s second volume, A Man in Love (2013) about his relation with his second wife and their family. The texture of everyday existence and his internal monologues as he did his best to live in ideologically correct Sweden and please his feminist wife, the only man taking his little child to pre-school singalongs where he spent the time lusting after the kindie teacher – what happens when you want to be a writer but aren’t allowed to – a typical woman’s story, now being written by a man who had acceded to feminist expectations. A lot of women writers seem to have approached Knausgaard only to go away again. There is something challenging about entering so deeply into this man’s mind which feels strangely disconcerting. We think we know how men think but it’s weird to have it confirmed in such detail. Good feminists aren’t supposed to enter this terrain at all, or so it seems, but I found it liberating. Knausgaard exemplifies a masochistic hysterical masculinism which seems to have become a default position for many hetero male writers today.
NOT AN INSPIRATION:
Elena Ferrante (well, that is not “who she really is”; all l the hoo-haa has been quite absurd, unless you subscribe to the Author as Sacred Object school of literary thought) is very popular with women readers. Everything she has written seems to me completely fake. I really and truly cannot read it. I have started one book, then another, tried going into the middle of the first one, then the end of the third and I don’t get it. Just look at those covers: Mummies and little girls in silly clothes, dollies and fairies, nakedness in the mirror, and a headless woman in a bright red dress. Really!
One of these days I will try again. If Knausgaard is the masculine consciousness of the twenty-first century, Ferrante might be the feminine counterpart and not in a good way. Women seem to read books in order to identify themselves with the narrator, and in line with a lot of feminist theoretical work from the 1970s and 1980s, she works from the classic masochistic feminine position. It is so depressing that a great many women still seem to find this compelling.
Everyone who writes is supposed to read all the time. I certainly do that, in part because of increasingly chronic insomnia. But reading too much (and watching too much Netflix) gets in the way of actually writing. So I am cutting right back. But at the recent Sydney Writer’s Festival (the one sponsored by Varuna at Katoomba, and only for one short day unfortunately) I heard Tara Westover talk about her just-published memoir educated and I had to buy the book and read it at once. Not finished yet, and will write more about it soon, but am loving it so far, and finding it inspires me with confidence about the value of life-writing. I love the fiction universe of course, the worlds created there, but the actual real world is pretty amazing!
As mentioned last time, memoirs are at the front of my priority list at the moment. I realise in retrospect that I have been reading memoirs now for several years. Westover’s book is about a young woman who is raised in a fundamentalist Mormon household on a mountain in Idaho. The thing is, she never went to school – shock horror – and yet became a highly successful writer, historian and academic at the top universities in Britain. I haven’t found out exactly how she accomplished this, but I kind-of relate to it. Of course I did go to school, and my family was hardly survivalist or fundamentalist, but the ethos of my early life was pretty similar: anti-Government, pro-self reliance, no emphasis on education, the constant awareness that you weren’t like other people who took city life and money and happiness for granted. And of course, being in Australia in the 1950s meant something different: the shadow of World War Two, family disruptions, deaths and secrets and silences.
I have read – what? – maybe thirty or forty memoirs about growing up in communes or remote communities or outside the mainstream world. In many ways I was doing the same until the mid-1970s and then, strangely, I slid back into it, but that older life never leaves you, and I think, from what Tara was saying in her talk, it has never left her either.
And today I am reflecting on the strangeness of it: reading other people’s life stories allows you in some way to rescue or re-inhabit your own.
Sometimes books appear and you know right away you want to read them. Nikki Gemmell is already a very well-known writer, with a lively career as a magazine journalist as well as ten plus full-length books, the best known being her first, The BrideStripped Bare. I have to confess it is the only one I have read. I’m not quite sure why. Her books seem to fall between a few stools: genre fiction, literary fiction, self-help, essay.
But her new book, After, is definitely in my territory. Memoir, true story, traumatic experience, mothers and daughters. I’ve already written my own version, about the death of my mother and my ex-husband within three weeks of each other back in 2008. I wrote it not long after but haven’t been able to bring myself to go back and edit it, let alone publish it. But it is on my list and should be finished by mid-year. I don’t think it will be much like Nikki’s book.
Nikki’s mother chose to die; mine didn’t. My mother never intended to die, ever, and the stupid accident which killed her could easily have been avoided. She was 93; she might conceivably even be alive today if she hadn’t lost her dentures. But that is my story, this is about Nikki’s, sort of, but not really, because I haven’t read it.
Tomorrow we are going to hear her talk about her book at a “meet the author” event in Katoomba, courtesy of the wonderful Gleebooks in Blackheath and Varuna Writer’s Centre. I have been looking forward to it. It’s so much better when you have read the book being discussed. So I did what I always do, and looked for it in a Kindle version from Amazon. Yes, it was there, so that was good, until I looked at the price. $14.99. In hardcover it’s $22.50. There doesn’t seem to be a paperback. What? Yes, it’s Harper Collins’ strategy to get you to buy the hardcover, or at least to stop you buying the e-book. Who would pay $15, even if it’s a great book and you really want to read it? And who is getting the lion’s share of the inflated e-book price? You can bet it’s not Nikki. No, for those who do pay for the e-book, Harper Collins will get the major part of it, even though their production cost for putting it up on Amazon as an e-book is probably near zero, since all the editing was done for the print version, the marketing costs cover both, and tweaking an already existing cover design for Kindle is so easy a kindergarten child could do it these days.
Sorry, Nikki, but I guess I won’t be reading your book for quite a while. I can put my name down for it at the local library, or maybe I will find some friend who has bought the hardcover. But I will not buy any more hardcover (or print) books unless they absolutely cannot be obtained any other way and I really really need them. And although I’m sure your book will be great, I just won’t support greedy publishers who expect readers to cough up absurdly high prices just to keep their existing legacy business model going. Just a reminder: when you “buy” an e-book you don’t really “buy” it in the traditional sense. It isn’t yours. The company who release it can remove it at any time. You can’t lend it to anybody else. You can’t give it away as a present. You are just hiring it. A price above $10.00 is wholly unjustifiable.
Writing my previous post about pernicious publishing practices in the Amazon age, I found myself reflecting on that Australian literary and political figure Bob Ellis. Near the end of his life (he died at his Palm Beach home in April 2016) he gave a radio broadcast about the things that really mattered.
His early life in small-town Lismore had, on reflection, been one of them, and he regretted the way he had lost contact with the tight-knit community-based world where families all knew each other back for generations, where collective events were celebrated and sins were forgiven. Of course we know it isn’t like that any more – the horrors of small-town and rural life are the stuff of legend – family murders, suicides, drug addiction, child abuse and the rest of it – any virtues seemingly eclipsed in the heady rush of late modernity. It surprised me that he expressed such nostalgia for a way of life he despised in his glory days.
I was a little disappointed in Bob’s book, not because the individual essays and articles weren’t interesting but because I had expected an autobiography or memoir, a reflection on earlier commitments and decisions. What seems self-evident at one time may turn out to seem very peculiar three decades later. Bob’s radio broadcast suggested he was in a state of reconsideration, and this book sometimes let you glimpse that, but more would have been welcome. As in life, Bob couldn’t stop himself namedropping. The reader is left in no doubt about how chummy he was with the great and good as well as the infamous not-so good. Bob Ellis was an Australian icon, but his legacy may disappear quickly. He was a genuinely strange person.
I knew Bob back in his Sydney Uni days, when he hung around with those two great poets Les Murray and Geoffrey Lehmann. Bob was generally long-haired and shabby. Les was fat and looked like a farmer, which in fact he was. Geoff was immaculately be-suited and always elegant and polite. They were an ill-assorted trio. Les went on to become a right-wing identity and Poet Laureate, while Geoff remained a lawyer as well as a poet. Bob became ever more leftish, cultivated important connections and wrote many plays and screenplays as well as several books.
Young Bob Ellis (ABC)
I met him many times at pubs and parties, but he mostly ignored anybody who wasn’t important or political and was rarely cordial or even polite to those he deemed below him. I hadn’t seen him for over a decade, during which time I had spent two years as an anthropologist living among Aboriginal people in the desert. Then, to my amazement, there he was at Maralinga, at the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Testing, 1984. I had been asked to act as the Royal Commission’s anthropological advisor, reporting directly to the Commissioner. “Diamond Jim” McLelland was an august and controversial legal figure with his dapper suits and air of absolute superiority. Renowned as a supporter of Gough Whitlam and accused of extreme Leftism by various Australian rightists, he went on to front the Land and Environment Court.
In the remote flyblown deserts of Northwest South Australia Diamond Jim fitted in with grace and good temper, sitting under flimsy shades among the Aboriginal witnesses, squatting around campfires, and walking unconcernedly through the plutonium fields. I went wherever he went and listened to all the evidence. I pointed out where translations to and from English seemed inadequate or wrong. Bob Ellis was there to write a book. He and Diamond Jim seemed to be best mates, and had been permitted to attend the desert hearings, a rare privilege. I don’t think any other writers or journalists were allowed to be there. Shambling, shuffling and disordered, Bob behaved with dismissive contempt to almost everyone. He did try to converse with the Aboriginal witnesses but they had no idea who he was and thought he was just another lunatic white man. He paid no attention to other white people, including me, so I never got to discuss his perceptions of what was happening, although I would have liked to.
I have finished a long story – novelette length – about Maralinga for my new collection of stories, Radiant Sands, which will be out soon. In Bob’s collected works was a long piece about Maralinga, which I had not been aware of previously. This essay seems to be all that remains of his intended book.
Bob seemed to have attended closely to the Aboriginal evidence and was able to convey the extraordinary quality of the desert hearings, although the details were sparse. It was a good piece, and I enjoyed it.
My fictionalised novelette, Last Patrol, is very different. The people Bob Ellis saw and heard during the Royal Commission were members of the the same groups of people whose story I tell in Last Patrol. I wanted to restore the realities that lay behind the formality and structured context of a legal hearing. I imagined events and invented composite characters. But I believed then, and still believe, that it was a true story. I had no reason to question the account of many people that their relatives had been living in the far bush and that some had perished in the bomb blasts.
I attempted to persuade the Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission to follow up this line of questioning. It is not possible to ask the Royal Commissioner directly to pursue such an issue himself, it has to go through arcane and indirect processes involving the introduction of evidence which can be challenged by others with the right to appear at the hearing. There were plenty of these. Many Aboriginal witness statements agreed that there were people coming in from the far north-west at the time of the first tests, and that they had never been seen again. But there was no way of getting direct evidence since nobody had survived. To present this as evidence would require that the witnesses know exactly who they were, be able to name them, to state why and how they knew there were walking into the atomic test sits area at that time, and the basis on which they knew it. If they couldn’t do so, their words were just speculation and hearsay, or so I was told. The question opened up too great a can of worms, even for this enquiry
Aboriginal people had told each other stories which had passed along the chain of communication to the north and west and right around the desert. The criteria of “truth” in a legal case depends on a certain kind of evidence: this, but not that; here but not there. That’s not the way Aboriginal people think, nor is it the way their world is constructed. Even the “black cloud” evidence was not fully convincing to the judge and the legal team. The “missing relatives” story was even less so. The Australian legal process when applied to non-English speaking Aboriginal people is so totally misplaced and unable to penetrate into the “truth” of any situation. I was so completely disaffected and infuriated by the way the Royal Commission proceeded, and the minimal impact of its findings. It did result in clean-ups, and the local Aboriginal land-holders did get rights to their land eventually, but the deeper truth of what happened seemed to me to have been consistently glossed over and trivialised.
Memories and stories have their own rationale; memoirs and autobiographies move to a different rhythm and produce a different kind of truth. Writing about an historical event using fictionalised reconstruction is a kind of knowledge-creation but it still makes me feel uneasy. Purely factual history makes the reader comfortable although there are so many different ways to construct it. Of the several factual books on Maralinga the recent prize-winner Atomic Thunder, by Elizabeth Tynan, is undoubtedly the best to date.
I don’t know what kind of book Bob Ellis would have written, or what he would have made of my story if he had lived to read it. I wrote Last Patrol well before Tynan’s book appeared. To what extent should one book influence another, where one is “fact” and the other is “fiction”? What value can we place on fictionalised narratives which rely on imagined events and composite characters? It’s an issue which needs far greater consideration than I can give it here, or probably ever.
All the injustice that the Aboriginal people of the desert experienced seemed wrapped up in the chain of events that motivated my story: their peremptory removal from their traditional lands, the contempt displayed towards anyone who protested, the absolute dismissal of their rights to life and liberty. It was ghastly but not surprising back in the days when the atomic testing program was established, but to find much the same attitudes expressed, even if covertly, in 1984 was truly shocking, and I couldn’t put it out of my mind. Was it wrong to use fiction to write about it? Wouldn’t a thorough analytic recounting using the detailed transcripts and thousands of pages of documents have been better?
Like Bob, I once thought I would write a book. I tentatively called it Maralinga: Memoirs of a RoyalCommission. I still have cartons and cartons of material in storage. But it became clear as the decades passed that I was never going to do it. Is a fictional story any kind of substitute? All I can do is hope that readers are led to consider the possibility that Aboriginal people in Central Australia are the only human beings on the planet ever to have been nuked, other than the victims of of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am not sure I did the right thing in writing that story, but I felt it needed to be told and that seemed the only way to do it. I will leave it up to the reader to decide, when it finally appears.
One of my Pages is called “Memoirs”. There I talk about the continuing Memoirs project and its inspiration (or otherwise) by the writings of recent authors. I’m repeating some of that here in this post.
While I still haven’t managed to read the whole of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s opus My Struggle (Volume Six still isn’t published in English anyway and some of them I just haven’t been able to get through) the way he wrote and published has been an inspiration.
I really appreciate the way he didn’t feel obliged to follow the temporal sequence of his existence, but came out with things in what seemed to be almost episodically random order. The first published in English was A Death in the Family and he was writing it round about the same time as I was writing my own maternal mortality story. His revelations about his father, which caused a violent storm in his native Norway, were pretty gruesome. I had nothing so dramatic to contribute. My mother had done some pretty awful things but she was nothing like the kind of horror Karol Ove described his father to be. If anyone was a horror, it was me. Sixty-three at the time, I was still trying to excel in my career. I thought I was much more important than anybody else. This was not the frame of mind to be in when trying to help a 93 year old woman through the last year of her life.
Like most English readers I was gripped by Knausgaard’s second volume, A Man in Love, about his relation with his second wife and their family. The texture of everyday existence and his internal monologues as he did his best to live in ideologically correct Sweden and please his feminist wife, the only man taking his little child to pre-school singalongs where he spent the time lusting after the kindie teacher – what happens when you want to be a writer but aren’t allowed to – a woman’s story, now by a man.
His other books had less to say to me, and I haven’t finished them all. Still, they are there on my Kindle and I dip in and out of them every once in a while. For all the sense of alienation and irritation Knausgaard is able to stir in me, I like the way he is trying to grapple with himself and come to terms with what a shit he was most of the time.
The second memoirist I must mention is the insanely popular Elena Ferrante (not. All the hoo-haa about who she “really” is has been quite absurd, unless you subscribe to the Author as Sacred Object school of literary identity). On the other hand there might be something to it because everything she has written seems to me completely fake. I really and truly cannot read it. I have tried, started one book, then another, tried going into the middle of the first one, then the end of the third and honestly I have to say I just don’t get it.
One of these days I will try again. If Knausgaard is the masculine consciousness of the twenty-first century, Ferrante is a feminine counterpart. Women seem to read books in order to identify themselves with the narrator, and in line with a lot of feminist theoretical work from the 1970s and 1980s, now largely ignored, it would seem that Ferrante works from the classic masochistic feminine position which a great many women still seem to find compelling and truthful for them.
Knausgaard on the other hand seems to me to exemplify the masochistic hysterical masculinism which our times have produced. This is not the place to conduct a forensic analysis of these writings, looming large over the “serious” reading scene though they are. But the experience of tangling with them has sharpened up powerfully my sense of what memoirs can, or maybe cannot, do.